In my freshman year Biology class, I went to office hours frequently because I knew I wasn’t doing very well. I’m a humanities major, I’m not dumb, science just wasn’t my thing, and I expected the professor to understand that as this was an introductory class. Most of my classmates were pre-med, though, so I’m sure I stood out as “the bad student.” Either way, he told me multiple times I should consider transferring because I “don’t belong here.”
I failed our first test, so I went to his office hours for clarification. He continued with his previous comments that didn’t explicitly call me stupid, but he heavily implied that I had no place in his class or at the school. I began to tear up, and I apologized, embarrassed. He gave me a tissue and told me not to worry about it, because “I’m used to girls crying in here.”
I could tell he meant it to be a kind gesture, so I said nothing.
He made me seriously question my intelligence and capabilities, when his job was to educate. I came in for help and was met with sexism and implicit insult, but somehow it felt like it was my fault for being weak and dumb
I also had to take a class with the previously mentioned horrifyingly sexist Mathematics professor. It was Discrete Mathematics, a class that every Computer Science major has to take before graduating, and one that’s very frequently only taught by this professor. I guess they don’t care because most CS majors are men, so it doesn’t matter if the few women feel unsafe, right?
He used to wear unique ties every day to class, making us memorize them for extra credit. For the final he wore one with two “hula girls” on it. He made a very specific point about how they USED to be topless and you USED to be able to see their nipples but his horrible wife made him cover them up. He then proceeded to make the men in the class vote on which woman in the class to name his naked hula ladies after. It was so incredibly demeaning and vile.
My friend got a lower grade on her first exam, nothing she couldn’t recover from, but she wanted to do better and went into his office hours. He told her – to her face – that she clearly wasn’t good at math, she shouldn’t try, and he couldn’t help her. A male friend got the same grade, went to his office hours, and got a full and productive hour of help.
He also mentioned how much he hated that the school allows women now, because he wants to make sexual comments about women’s bodies but the “overly sensitive” female students would get upset.
Most egregiously of all – and the reason why I never reported him (though I’m ashamed for it all the same) – was that on the very first day of class he sized all of the women up, looked us each in the eye, and told us a “funny story” about how some “crazy” student tried to file a Title IX report against him. He found out about it while she was still in his class, and he told us – laughing- that he directly confronted her and got her to admit that he wasn’t actually sexist (because I’m sure she has no reason at all to be afraid) and retract the report. It was a warning to us. If we tried to report him, he would find out, and he would intimidate us into silence.
I had panic attacks almost daily because of his behavior. I feel sick thinking about him to this day.
As a First Year, I rushed due to my incredible anxiety about being a woman of color on W&L’s campus, and the social isolation I believed I would face. While going through the formal rush process, I found myself entering different sorority houses and scanning the room, trying to see how many non-white faces I saw. In most cases, I saw very few. In some houses, specifically the sororities that are considered to be “high tier” I saw as few as 0 people of color (current members) present. I felt like greek life wasn’t a space for me, but nevertheless was interested to accept my bid and see how the experience would be for me.
While I had reluctantly rushed out of social pressure and anxiety, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my role in perpetuating a system I strongly disagreed with.
I officially decided to disaffiliate, but had not gone through the process yet at that point. I am currently disaffiliated.
As a member of greek life, I know I enjoyed a level of privilege that independent students, particularly independent students of color, independent students in the LGBTQA+ community, independent students experiencing poverty, or independent students in other marginalized groups did not. However, greek affiliation aside, W&L is not a very welcoming community for students of color. It may not even be as explicit as a direct, verbal, racist statement, but rather, a feeling of awkwardness and otherness when walking around campus alone, walking past a group of all-white students, or even walking through town and fearing seeing Confederate flags flying. W&L as an institution often talks about diversity, and while there has been a stronger push for “inclusion” more recently, there is still a ton of work to be done.
Getting students from different backgrounds to attend W&L is one thing, but I know from experience and from dialogue with others that many students from a variety of backgrounds do not feel included on this campus or in the broader community. From parties that promote cultural appropriation or classism, to being the only non-white person in a room full of students discussing racism, this campus and much of its institutions and culture can feel very isolating and lonely for students in minority groups.
The Greek system has a stranglehold on W&L student life. Here’s a list of actual party themes during my four years that I can only hope are dead and buried: Old South (complete with antebellum costumes); Filthy Rich / 1%; Dirty South; a tequila shots party where the frat erected a fence attendees had to jump, patrolled by pledges dressed as ICE agents with water guns; a jungle party where the pledges were dressed as, ahem, rabbits (the first time I learned that particular slur); and countless “__ Bros & __ Hoes.” The school seemed more concerned with kegs than the racist, classist, and misogynistic themes.
Being a Black woman in a certain tenured English professor’s Southern American Literature class would be absolute hell any year, but I took it in the Fall of 2016. He got uncomfortably intense when he analyzed the sexual themes of the poetry we read. He would say god-awful, unrepeatable stereotypes about Trump supporters. He would also spew the most racist and sexist filth and use the texts we read as an excuse to do so, to exemplify the ideologies and mentalities of their era. This includes the occasional n-word if it appeared on the page. He said that with his WHOLE chest. Finally, we watched Gone With the Wind around Parents’ Weekend, and he actually asked the white students AND their parents if they’d had a MAMMY around to take care of them during their childhood.
The class of 2020 had a GroupMe with the 16 Black students at the time. We called ourselves the Sweet Sixteen. That’s how I first met some of my best friends. I grew up in a rural white town so the demographics of W&L never shook me, but the classism did and the racism that came with it did. The last four years have been tiring. I rarely got to be just a student. I constantly sat on committees. I often met with the President and Deans and Provosts to talk about how my friends were sad. I never felt comforted by their tepid efforts. I felt like I had to be kind to them or nice to stay on their good sides, to keep my seat at the table. It’s an icky power dynamic but I did get really skilled at navigating white spaces.
Many of my white peers simply get to enjoy the privilege of just being a student. Meanwhile, my GPA suffered. My mental health suffered. My friends’ mental health suffered too.
I lost track of myself.
I’m no stranger to the microagressions. It’s been hard being on a campus with a student body that pretends to care about diversity but won’t show up for Black Poetry Night, or will sleep in during the MLK parade in town. I’ve had performative white friendships. It’s been hard being a Black woman on this campus, feeling at odds in my body, feeling unattractive because of the very white, heteronormative beauty standard. I’ve been asked whether my friends and I go here while in coop with our backpacks on, because we don’t fit the “W&L aesthetic.” It’s odd, this feeling of being both visible and invisible at the same time. I’ve had people comment on how “articulate” I am.
The classroom has been a battlefield with racist professors who’ve asked me to swallow my blackness, my politics, my self. I’ve pleaded to the administration and to the board of trustees with carefully written lists of requests that often resulted in more committees, more work, more burden placed on me and my friends.
I’ve spoken out, I’ve written letters, I’ve read poems. And to save myself, at a certain point I chose myself over W&L. It rarely felt like anyone was listening.
Are you listening, now, W&L?
Are you really listening?
Can you feel the heat?
Things have always been burning.